Principal Brian Cox, right, hugs Judy Lissman, a 1994 Milken Educator Award recipient, after being announced as the newest Milken Award recipient for Wyoming Monday, Dec. 9, 2019 at Johnson Junior High School. The Milken Award recognizes achievements by early- and mid-career educators while encouraging their future accomplishments with the $25,000 financial award. Nadav Soroker/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – It was the first time Johnson Junior High had ever held a full-school assembly, Principal Brian Cox told those gathered inside the school’s gymnasium Monday morning.

Nearly 1,000 people, consisting of more than 800 students and 100 teachers, crowded inside the gym for a special announcement. However, only a few people knew what the assembly was really about.

Obviously it was important, since there were a number of special guests sitting at the head of the crowd, including representatives from the offices of U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, all R-Wyo.; Laramie County School District 1 Superintendent Boyd Brown, and LCSD1 board members and trustees.

Cox started the assembly by leading the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by having the students chant the school’s motto. He was followed by Brown, who then introduced Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow.

Balow praised the students for being so peppy at 10 a.m., crediting the school’s universal breakfast program that provides a morning meal to all of the students, even if they are late one morning.

The school’s cheerleaders and band were also in attendance, helping get the crowd riled up.

But it was when Milken Educator Awards senior program director Greg Gallagher took the podium that the buzzing in the room was almost audible.

“You’ve probably never heard of the Milken Family Foundation, but the foundation has heard a lot about you,” Gallagher told the assembly-goers. “We’ve heard great things about your school and about your staff.”

Gallagher explained that he came to Johnson on Monday for two reasons: to share an important message and to deliver important news that the foundation had been keeping secret from everyone.

The message regarded the role that educators and principals play in our society and how important they are.

The news was that one of the staff members at the junior high was being awarded the “Oscars of teaching,” the Milken Educator Award, which comes with national recognition and an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize.

When the students found out how much money someone at their school was going to receive, their jaws dropped. Many gasped or even yelped at the news. Their enthusiasm and awe was infectious.

Finally, Gallagher announced the winner: Principal Cox.

The crowd went wild. Cox himself couldn’t believe what was happening. Gallagher and a number of guests helped unroll the massive check, which displayed Cox’s name and confirmed his prize of $25,000.

Cox is the only Wyoming recipient of the Milken Educator Award this year and is one of up to 40 nationally for 2019-20.

He has been the principal at the junior high for the last four years. He received his bachelor’s degree in biology in 2002 and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction in 2006. He’s currently pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership.

Outside of being a principal, Cox is a major running enthusiast who has participated in a number of ultra-marathons; he sits on the board of the Wyoming Association of Secondary School Principals and has lobbied Congress for Title 1 funding for disadvantaged students. He also mentors new principals and strives to boost the professional development of each teacher he oversees. He’s also on the board of the Boys and Girls Club and raises money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital.

He’s also banned cellphones from the junior high campus during his time as principal, showing that they have a negative effect on student learning, and helped organize a youth equality summit that was held at the start of the current school year.

Cox told reporters following the assembly that he was still processing the news that he’d even received this recognition, especially regarding the money. He joked that he’d helped plan his own surprise all weekend.

“My wife and I started up a scholarship fund for students here at Johnson Junior High, so I expect we’ll put some of the money toward that,” he said.

He thanked his wife and two children for supporting him through all of his career endeavors and noted that when he joins the other Milken Educator Award winners in Indiana in March, he wants to focus on teenage vaping as a major issue affecting junior high and high schools.

However Cox was ready to give credit to the educators he works with on a daily basis for helping him achieve this award.

“I would say I didn’t do this alone, and that this is all because of the staff and students I get to work with every day,” he said. “A lot of times people look down on our school and have perceptions about it, even though they’ve never set foot inside of it, so I would encourage anyone to come out and see what Firebird Nation is all about.”

Ellen Fike is a freelance writer living in Cheyenne. She can be reached at elfylucille@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EllenLFike.

Ellen Fike is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s features editor. She can be reached at efike@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3135. Follow her on Twitter @EllenLFike

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